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How to Write Headlines: 7 Scroll-Stopping Examples from the Cosmo Playbook

A blurred photo of a man standing on a stage in front of a lot of people

Cosmopolitan magazine has been a fixture at magazine stands and grocery store checkouts for decades. What you may not realize is that a glance at the cover can give you a master class on how to write headlines.

Headlines — and the copywriter behind them — turned a once-struggling publication into an international sensation.

In 1965 Cosmo, as it’s often called, was teetering on the edge of survival. The along came Helen Gurley Brown.

Gurley Brown gained recognition as one of the most rewarded advertising copywriters across the U.S. Her 1962 bestseller, “Sex and the Single Girl,” published just before Betty Friedan sparked the women’s movement, heralded a new wave in the publishing world.

Her copywriting expertise landed Gurley Brown a role at Cosmo. She not only revived the magazine but remained at the helm as editor for an impressive tenure of 32 years.

The secret to her success? She knew how to grab a reader’s attention. A big part of that was her headline-writing skills.

Flanked by images of stunning women, this simple yet compelling strategy catapulted Cosmopolitan from near extinction to an international sensation, boasting 64 global editions. By the time Gurley Brown left her editor’s position, Cosmo was selling 2.5 million copies a month.

So how does learning how to write headlines for magazines translate to the success of a small business?

cosmo covers

It turns out that the magazine rack is one of the best places to find inspiration for how to write headlines that make your content marketing an attention magnet.

Take a look at the magazines that rely on the impulsive decision of a reader to pick them up. There you’ll find a treasure trove — inspiration for how to write headlines that make an impact.

With a dash of imagination and some clever re-writing, even a provocative magazine headline could become captivating for a business audience.

Related: 3 Ways I Use AI for Faster Content Production

Why do headlines matter so much?

With readers being constantly bombarded with information, your content needs to stand out.

That’s why mastering headlines is crucial.

Let’s take a quick look at three key components of a compelling headline.

1. Attraction

Scroll-stopping headlines are the first point of contact between your content and the reader. No matter how valuable your content is, without a catchy headline, chances are it will be overlooked.

Learning how to write headlines that entice is your first step in attracting an audience.

2. Retention

This might come as a shock — most online readers only read about 20% of a page’s content.

An intriguing headline not only attracts readers but keeps them on the page longer, increasing the chances of engagement with your content.

3. Action

Compelling headlines don’t just make people read — they make people act.

Whether it’s signing up for a newsletter, buying a product, or sharing your content, the power of a persuasive headline can drive conversions and boost your business’s bottom line.

In the grand scheme of things, headlines may seem small. But their impact is not. The most successful businesses understand this and have honed the art of creating scroll-stopping headlines.

Want to learn how to write headlines that not only catch the eye but also inspire action? Here are some examples, in the style of Cosmo — and Helen Gurley Brown’s attention-getting way with words.

How to write headlines that hook: 7 ideas inspired by Helen Gurley Brown

Let’s re-imagine some classic Cosmopolitan-style headlines to demonstrate how to write headlines that you can use to engage your audience:

Get the Life You Want: It’s Way Easier Than You Think becomes
Get the Sales You Want: It’s Way Faster Than You Think
(for a CRM software company’s landing page)

329 Beauty Tricks: We Tried Them. They Work! becomes
329 Whiter Smile Tricks. We Approve Them Because They Work!
(for a dental practice booklet)

Gut Feelings You Should Never Ignore becomes
Analytics Numbers You Should Never Ignore
(for an SEO company’s blog post)

4 Risks You’re Not Taking Seriously Enough becomes
4 Customer Signals You Need to Notice Now
(for an in-house sales publication)

10 Subliminal Tricks That Make People Adore You becomes
10 Subliminal Techniques to Get Yourself Hired
(for a virtual assistant agency website)

Firm Up Your Beach Body Fast: Seven Days to Gorgeous becomes
Transform Your Business Fast: Seven Weeks to Profits
(for a business coach’s blog)

7 Things Your Partner Talks About When You’re Not There becomes
7 Things Your Customer Complains About When You’re Not There
(for a sales training manual)

Headline inspiration is everywhere

Here’s a professional copywriter’s secret: Stay alert and stay curious. Investigate magazine racks, explore high-traffic websites, and study social media posts gaining traction.

What insights can you gain from the structure of the headlines you discover? How can you modify a few words to customize them?

The best copywriters don’t start out as headline-writing experts. They developed that skill, and so can you.

Devote time to learning how to write headlines. The best ones entice, make a daring promise, and spark curiosity.

It might seem like a tall order, but with the right inspiration — which is all around you — you’ll soon become a pro!

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson is the Chief Marketing Officer at DCS. She’s the creator of the Offer Accelerator Program. Learn more about Pamela’s content marketing books, and read reviews of the tools used to run this site.
Pamela Wilson coaches people in midlife to build profitable online businesses
I’m Pamela Wilson

In 2010, at the age of 45, I started this site and grew it into a business that offers freedom, flexibility — and consistent revenue.

30 thoughts on “How to Write Headlines: 7 Scroll-Stopping Examples from the Cosmo Playbook”

  1. In a previous role, I was tasked with writing 4-5 blog posts per week (yep, just about daily). So I would go to the bookstore at least 2 days out of the week to just sit and write post titles. The way I’d do it was simple… I’d go to the magazine rack, pick up 4-6 magazines, order a grande caramel machiatto, and then I’d sift through the magazine covers and rewrite post titles in my moleskine notebook in the exact same fashion you did in this post.

    Great tactic! Works like a charm 😉

  2. Pamela,

    Love, love , love your ideas for creating attention grabbing headlines from attention grabbing headlines. Why reinvent the wheel? I’m in the process of naming a tele-seminar about how to steal time from your day to have the life you want – so your title about “Have the life you want, it’s easier then you think” is inspiring me! Thanks!!!!!!!!!

  3. I write a daily post for a sports website. The post is a daily digest of all the related news and general college football stories out there. Right now the title/headline is basically the date, but I want to write creative ones to really draw the reader in. It is difficult since the post doesn’t center on one specific theme. Any ideas would be appreciated. 🙂

    • Hi Ami,

      Can you find something to comment on for the lead story in the bunch? Highlight the one that will draw the most attention? That would be more compelling than the date.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. This is one of my faves — it’s where I got the idea for “50 Things Your Customers Wish You Knew” and “Feel Great Naked: Confidence Boosters for Getting Personal” (which was about being more comfortable sharing your personality in content).

    • Cosmopolitan is especially good for this, isn’t it? And actually, the headline for this post is inspired by one I saw on a Cosmo cover, too. Except theirs was about getting your guy to stand up … and I’m pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with conversion, at least not in the marketing sense. 😉

  5. You outdid yourself with this post, Pamela. What makes each of these headlines effective is they speak to specifics. You can instantly tell that the content they’re leading you in to contains cold hard facts and useful information.

    Since the core component of my marketing pieces are usually the offers, I like to use the headline “Guinea Pigs Wanted for Evil Experiment.” I’ve used this headline in a few direct mail pieces, combined with a killer offer and a reasonably easy to meet requirement, it can work pretty well.

  6. Hi Pamela,

    I love the headline examples you have shared in the post. It goes to show how simple and easy it is to write them if you just know what you want to write.

    I often use Magazines like the image you used and also newspapers to get ideas for blog post headlines. The press and the printed media are great at this.

    Wriiting headlines that convert is one of the great ways to get higher click through rate on blog post. I will be mentioning this post in one of my upcoming articles.

    To Your Success,
    Eddie Gear

  7. Fabulous post Pamela! I have to write a couple of blog posts for my clients today, your timing is impeccable ;). I tend to write the post first then change the headline 4 or 5 times but this will make it SO much easier! And drastically improve the quality of my headlines I might add. I often feel like the quality of my post is good but the headline doesn’t convey any excitement. Thank you for another great tip!!

  8. And you can follow up the headline research by visiting Amazon to research your copy. Go to books on the subject matter you’re writing about, then read the reviews to see how regular people talk about the subject, and what they care about most.

  9. Pingback: 19 // Eddie Gear
  10. Browse around some of the internet marketing pages, sign up for their “free offers” to get on their lists (might be a good idea to use a second email address) and then put the best ones in your swipe file / Evernote account.

  11. One of the smartest things I’ve ever done was to pay attention to tabloid headlines. They grab attention like crazy PLUS they’ve spent millions in testing subject titles. Great post!

  12. I’ve found that the best way to write online headlines is to give your readers some sort of news that they will benefit from but also make them feel as if you’ve left something out so they want or need to find out more.

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